Not until she watched the mourners who filed by her stepson’s casket did Kathy Magallanes let herself consider that the sweet teenager everyone called “Smiley” might have been a gang member.
But after the 16-year-old was shot dead in May 2005 in what police deemed a gang-related dispute, Kathy Magallanes looked around the funeral home and saw it. His friends all had the same shaved heads, same thin mustaches and patches of goatee, the same big jeans and brown bandannas, and the same hard look as Javier.
“We wanted to believe the boys when they said they’d never been initiated into any gangs, but everyone around them seemed to be,” Kathy Magallanes said.
Javier Magallanes was a member of Brown Pride, one of Nashville’s mostly Mexican street gangs, police said. His 2005 death was among 69 violent crimes deemed to be gang-related in Metro last year.
And although Hispanic members are less than 10 percent of Nashville’s street gang population, they were responsible for about 45 percent of last year’s gang-related violence, police said.
Metro’s gang unit detectives spent much of their time last year in heavily Hispanic areas to combat the rise. This year, the gang unit has focused its attention on the predominantly black gangs in the north and east Nashville areas. The number of gang-related violent incidents or gun crimes involving Hispanic gangs has gone down to about 30 percent—officially.
Gang violence grips Nashville family
Often, those targets are members of the Kurdish Pride Gang or Asian Pride Gang, also focused in south Nashville. Other times, the officers target the area’s Hispanic gangs.
On a recent night shift, flex officers saturated an area where they believed a homicide suspect and member of the MS 13 gang was staying. Later, the flex officers showed up unannounced at a new club on Nolensville Road that already has a reputation as a gang hangout, and asked patrons for their IDs.
Traffic stops often result in catching unlicensed drivers or people with outstanding arrest warrants, so they frequently stop cars for violations.
About 42 percent of Hispanics attending urban schools reported gang activity in their schools, according to the federal Office of Juvenile Justice.
Metro Nashville school officials have expressed concern about the high dropout rate among Hispanic students. While 60 percent of Metro students reach graduation, the rate of Hispanic students graduating within four years and getting a regular diploma is just 40 percent, said Paul Changas, director of assessment and evaluation for Metro schools.
Gang activity in the schools is a well-known problem, with at least some gang members attending virtually every Metro middle and high school. The juvenile probation officer who keeps an eye on the most hardcore gang members keeps an office in Glencliff High School, where Javier attended.
Police estimate there are 1,500 active gang members in the city they know about and thousands of “associate” members they haven’t heard of yet. Members of the three major Hispanic gangs probably make up about 10 percent of the city’s street gang population, according to police estimates.
Nationwide, membership in Hispanic gangs is much higher. A 2004 study by the Office of Juvenile Justice estimated that 49 percent of all youth street gang members were Hispanic, compared with 37 percent black and 8 percent white.
While hardcore members of larger gangs are often full-time gang-bangers, adult members of the MS 13 or Brown Pride usually hold down jobs, detectives said. Police estimate that the majority of Sur 13 and Brown Pride members are of Mexican descent but American-born.
It’s more common to see members of MS 13 or Mara Salvatrucha—traditionally from El Salvador or Honduras—in the country illegally. Often, they are deported for their crimes and quickly return to the U.S., Sgt. Kemper of the gang unit said.
Experts believe an uptick in immigration and the movement of gangs from big cities to smaller, less gang-savvy cities have contributed to the growth of the street gangs throughout the country. Davidson County’s Hispanic population has grown more than 37 percent since 2000.